Jefferson Seth McIntyre

Jefferson Seth McIntyre (Association for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities – AEPD in Vietnam): Seth holds a BA from the College of Santa Fe. Prior to his fellowship, he served in the Peace Corps in Guyana. Seth also worked with AmeriCorps in New Orleans where he provided free legal aid for indigent clients. His interest in advocacy began on a Navajo reservation where he wrote an award-winning expose on the impact of uranium mining on the reservation. Seth was studying for an MA at Brandeis University when he was deployed to Vietnam. After his fellowship, Seth wrote: “(This has been) one of the most profound professional and personal experiences I have ever had. AEPD is an organization of exceptional merit, skills, and commitment, and meeting with Agent Orange survivors in the field changed my perspective on many things – (including) the American War.”

Across the Streets of Hanoi

25 Jun

On advice from the front desk agent, I opt to wander the byzantine streets of Hanoi nestled in the old quarter of the city, soaking in the cool air and the moist breeze. Although Hanoi is rapidly developing, divisions in wealth are still heir apparent, shaded though they are in the neon of its nighttime glow. If monotony thrives where nothing changes: Hanoi is a safe bet for decades of excitement.

The variety and excitement of the street life is never ending, vespas packed in blocks and rows, beer gardens spilling into the streets, ramshackle homes, dank alleyways of swamp, the green light of storefronts illuminating the banyan trees, casinos, restaurants, boutiques, general stores, tattoo parlors—even a dentist’s office in the midst of an incisor picking. All is showcased on the road.

But, for the number of people playing games like bola tangkas,  laughing, eating bowls of beef and chicken phở, I see many ambling about, but almost no one crossing the street. And this is alarming. In theory, the route should not be difficult, but the streets of Hanoi are far from a pedestrians paradise. Sprawling, seemingly unplanned roads collide: a two way street merges into three that merges into seven. But the force at which these vehicles travel together is downright frightening, a literal onslaught of motos and horns much akin to killer bees. A single streetlight regulates the flow that most motorists ignore. Of those who do mind its perfunctory authority, a complete stop is out of the question. At these levels, one couldn’t regulate it if they wanted to.


The relentless unofficial business of the moto-taxis makes much more sense now. Those motos don’t navigate the road; they pilot its culture. They know the dictates of sound judgment: like how to shoulder the road into oncoming traffic avoiding the inefficiency of circling the block. They know how to conduct pavement rides, swerve, cradle babies, and text/talk/drive.

And the moto-taxis do well.

Their knowledge of the roads—their key to the epistemological certainty of the streets—is what, in the end, you will pay for. It’s pure madness, but there’s no proof of the madness. Nothing is happening, accidents are not occurring. People get from Point A to Point B with almost zero effort. The mass of Hanoian motos moves as one, not killer bees, but the murmurations of starlings.

The thought comes to mind: what would people back home believe when a critical mass of vespas mauled and—literally—tired me to tiny bits? It this really how I will go out? Would their eventually be a “why did the chicken cross the road joke about me?” And would it be funny? Do they have those jokes in Vietnam?

Fortunately, I didn’t stand there pondering oblivion too long. A fellow pedestrian, an older Vietnamese woman about half my size, sidestepped me straight into the road, looking neither direction for oncoming traffic. To my complete disbelief, every vehicle stopped for her, or California-stopped for her, as she gently roamed across. Knowing this was my only chance, I jumped in after her, mimicking her every move. To the motorists, it must have looked like we were dancing, a synchronized shuffle through the mayhem.

People always say this after they’ve done it, but, sure enough, the other side was closer than I thought.

Posted By Jefferson Seth McIntyre

Posted Jun 25th, 2014


  • Karin

    July 5, 2014


    Seth, I read somewhere that there are more motor bikes in Hanoi than there are people. Safely crossing the street in Hanoi may be symbolic of the other challenges you’ll learn to overcome by yes, learning from the locals. Sometimes walking in a straight line won’t always get you where you need to go. As your journey along the trail of agent orange continues, I am confident that you’ll find your own footing. I really look forward to reading more about your work in Quang Binh!

    • Jefferson Seth McIntyre

      August 5, 2014


      It makes perfect sense. I’ve actually started using this little factoid as a joke. For instance, I could eat more spring rolls than Hanoi has motorbikes–get a confused look–and then reply, just kidding, there’s nothing more than Hanoi has motorbikes.

  • Wade McIntyre

    July 6, 2014


    “Those mottos don’t navigate the road: they pilot its culture.” What a great line, observation, jolt of an intro to Hanoi and Vietnam. Enjoyed this blog very much, and looking forward, already, to the next.

  • Giorgia Nicatore

    August 3, 2014


    Beautifully written, reading your words is almost like zig-zagging between those motos and cars. I feel like I too just crossed the road with you your Vietnamese guide! 🙂

    • Jefferson Seth McIntyre

      August 5, 2014


      Thank you Giorgia, appreciate the support!

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